All of which helps explain why some senators who voted against the background-check bill returned this week from their states sounding more conciliatory on the issue. GOP Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, have expressed willingness to revisit the bill, while New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte felt compelled to pen an op-ed asserting that she supports some other universal background checks (putting her in favor of checks after she was against them). All of this prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to tell reporters that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the leading sponsors of the bipartisan background-check bill, "thinks he has a couple of more votes."
And it belies the NRA's smug bombast. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted this week, if the pro-gun forces were as unassailable as they think they are, then these Republicans would defiantly brandish the Second Amendment and be done with it. Instead they're scrambling for excuses and political cover. That isn't to say that universal checks will be enacted this year. The Giffords-Bloomberg forces, for example, must still exact measurable ballot box punishment before the NRA's fearsome reputation is truly neutralized. It will take time.
But time is on their side: A recent study by the Center for American Progress noted that the percentage of households owning guns has declined steadily for three decades. And a steady drop in gun ownership among young Americans specifically has driven this trend. The most vocal gun control opponents are aging and diminishing, in other words.
Future political scholars may mark this moment as when the NRA started the decline from swagger to stagger.